How to Solve 4 of the Biggest Time Crunch Problems

If you’re like most managers, it probably feels like stuff is constantly coming at you – emails, meetings, materials to review, people popping into your office with questions. As a result, it can be tough to carve out time for the things that you’d most like to get done.

We haven’t yet figured out how to slow down the passage of time, but we do have some practical tips for handling four of the most common time crunch problems:

1. Taming the email beast. If you’re drowning in email and regularly feeling that as soon as you deal with one message, five more arrive to take its place like a terrible electronic hydra, these tips may help:

  • Check email only at defined periods, such as first thing in the morning, after lunch, and before you leave for the day. And importantly, turn off your “new messages” indicator so you aren’t tempted to keep stopping what you’re doing to see what new messages have arrived.
  • Schedule time to work on your biggest priorities in your calendar, so that you’re limiting the time you have available to deal with email, knowing that you’ll do it faster in the limited time you leave open for it. There’s an old adage that work expands to fill the time you give it – and it can be powerful to have your calendar reflect the things you most want to spend time on while letting the rest fill in where there’s room.
  • Use your inbox only for messages that still need to be dealt with, and delete or file everything else into folders labeled by project or the required action (such as “to read,” “to act on,” “to follow up on,” and “as time allows”) Otherwise, you’ll end up using your inbox for storage and won’t be able to quickly differentiate between what you’ve already handled and what you still have to deal with.
  • If you can deal with an email in two minutes or less, do it upon the first reading – don’t wait. Reply, forward it to someone else to deal with, put it in your “to read” folder, delete it, or otherwise take whatever action is needed to move it out of your inbox.
  • Reply to emails in a way that makes clear who should drive what steps and how people should move forward so that they don’t need to keep coming to you for every future step. For example, “Juan, would you run this proposal past Leah and then, if she agrees, own the process of making it happen and pull Tony into helping with scheduling?”
  • Discourage people from using email to sort through complex issues that will require lots of back and forth. Don’t be shy about saying, “Can we jump on the phone to quickly hash this out?” Or better yet, train your staff to either:
    • send you emails that you can reply to with just a simple “yes” or “no” (for example, “here’s a bunch of background, I propose X, do you agree?”), or
    • give you background and tell you that they’ll find time to discuss (“I’ll talk to Julia to get on your calendar for 15 minutes, but here’s the background”)

2. Rescuing yourself from meeting overload. How often have you agreed to spend an hour at a meeting that wasn’t crucial, while your to-do list was filled with high-impact items that could more powerfully drive your work forward, like figuring out the details of a new initiative or giving a staff person important feedback? To cut back on meeting overload, try the following:

  • Be relentless about asking yourself, “Is my presence in this meeting the most important thing I could be doing with my time right now?” If it’s not, give yourself permission not to attend and explain to the meeting organizer that you’re in triage mode. If you feel uneasy or awkward about taking yourself out of the loop altogether, a compromise might be to spend five minutes giving input to the meeting organizer ahead of time and/or to ask for someone to share the key takeaways with you afterwards. (One note of caution: Try to avoid canceling check-in meetings with staff members since they’re a key part of managing people well and should save you time in the long-run.)
  • Create a set of meeting norms for your team. For example:
    • All meetings will have agendas written ahead of time to ensure participants’ time is spent as effectively as possible.
    • All meetings will start and end on time, or we’ll make a conscious decision to extend if needed in rare cases.
    • Meeting facilitators are encouraged to use a “parking lot” – a place to record and save off-topic items for another time if they’re not important enough to displace the original agenda.
    • Each meeting will have a facilitator who is charged with moving the agenda along, capturing next steps, and ensuring that the meeting wraps up on time.
  • Make sure that you have transferred enough real responsibility to staff members so that, where practical, they don’t need you in every meeting and are able to make decisions and move work forward on their own. Where you truly do need to be involved, ensure that you have clear owners who develop recommended courses of action and then run them by you, primarily to keep you informed or perhaps for you to give input or, in rare cases, veto a course of action.

3. Not wanting to say no. Part of being disciplined about spending your time on your most important goals is that you will also need to be clear on how you shouldn’t be spending your time. Otherwise, you can easily find your calendar filling up with work that isn’t aligned with your biggest goals and never have enough time for the work that will produce the most impact.

Often when managers struggle with this, it’s because there are so many potentially worthy ways they could be spending their time. It can help to remember that saying no to a project doesn’t mean that project wouldn’t have value; rather, it’s about recognizing that while many projects might be worthy, some are likely to have a much bigger impact than others.

One executive director we know described his feelings this way: “I’ve been told that I should let my staff take the calls from most of our volunteers and activists. But I feel like by doing it myself, I’m panning for gold. All sorts of nuggets come out of those conversations, and I don’t want to miss those.” But by spending his time taking all of these routine calls, he was letting entire gold mountains go unexplored, as he greatly cut into the time he had available for overseeing strategy and raising funds. (He has since shifted out of this mode and generated several sizable contributions that might not have otherwise happened.)

Here are some ways to say no that can help to keep in your pocket:

  • “I wish I could help, but I’m in triage mode right now with my schedule.”
  • “We’ve got our hands full with our new campaign launch, so for now I have to say no.”
  • “X and Y are taking all of my focus right now, but let’s add this to our list of possible projects to think about down the road.”

4. Not letting go of the monkey. Referencing a classic piece in the Harvard Business Review, we often tell managers to think of each project or task as a monkey someone is carrying around on her back. When you assign a project, you’re handing over the monkey – and after that, you need to be careful not to “take the monkey back” by stepping in to do part of all of the work yourself.

If you’re struggling to find enough time in the day to focus on your biggest priorities, it’s worth looking at whether you have a habit of taking back the monkey – or even of not fully letting go of the monkey to begin with. Signs that you’re doing this include:

  • When you see a project isn’t going well, you step in and do pieces of it yourself.
  • When a staff member hits an obstacle in her work, you feel responsible for figuring out the solution yourself, rather than asking her to propose solutions.
  • You tend to use your staff members more as “helpers” rather than as real owners of broad responsibilities and as a result you have to identify, delegate, and manage every task that comes up.

If any of that sounds familiar, that’s a flag that you’re carrying around monkeys who miss their proper owners! We’ve got some tips here on how to return them to your staff members.